Tuesday, April 12, 2016
So, if you've been reading this blog since the beginning, you already know that I have a weakness for film noir and a separate weakness for black and white. And how beautifully the two match up in this elegant drama about an aging silent picture siren and the broke screenwriter who is her kept man. In some ways, this movie made me think of a really dark turn for Lena Lamont after Singin' In the Rain. Norma Desmond still has a faded dignity about her, and some elements about the movie make you wonder if they would fly today. While Norma using threats of suicide to keep Joe with her is undoubtedly an abusive action, would the more modern mindset have made the situation so acutely uncomfortable as to turn tragic? I've known a few fellows who joke that their goal in life is to find an attractive older woman and become kept men, and Gloria Swanson definitely qualifies as an attractive older woman. Is it the level of shame in 1950 for a man not being the breadwinner? It seems to be more that than her personality, though some effort is given to make her personality seem unattractive. Norma Desmond is shown as self-obsessed, petty, and distinctly unsympathetic, while also being generous and highly affectionate. Actually, if I taught psychology instead of English, I would probably use her as a good example of Borderline Personality Disorder in film. Her psychotic break at the end keeps it from being a sensitive portrayal, but the alternating loving and generous and self-obsession and demanding attention are pretty classic.
The cinematography is fantastic and the sets are all glorious. I'm not usually a fan of narration in film, but it works very well here. Often you don't need to be told what's in the character's head, but since Joe's murder at the beginning is the framing device, it becomes more necessary. I know some people really hate the "This is the story of how I died" framing device, but this is the earliest film I'm familiar with that uses it. Points for originality there. There's also the litany of crazy beauty treatments that women used to undergo to maintain their youthful appearance - also memorably filmed in Mommy Dearest. Now ladies who are beginning to show age have the quick and convenient option of having neurotoxin injected straight into their faces. Isn't progress wonderful? While the movie focuses primarily on Joe and his shame at being a failure at his job as a screenwriter, and his even deeper shame at being a kept man, I think Norma Desmond is a more interesting character. After all, she blames "talkies" on why she was discarded, but she's got a beautiful, cultured voice. It wasn't her voice at all - that was usually the bane of transferring to talkies. Talkies destroyed Clara Bow's career, because she had a heavy Bronx accent that filmgoers thought was uncouth. But in Norma's career, it's obvious it wasn't the sound that ended it. It was that she began to age. She was discarded because she was no longer twenty-five. Joe memorably tells her at the end of the movie that there's no shame in being fifty, unless it tries to act twenty-five, but he's in a position that was allowed to be both ages. Poor Norma wasn't.
Definitely watch this movie for some fascinating takes on Hollywood life, the question of male dignity, and the question of female aging. It has a few 50's sensibilities, but it's still astonishingly relevant.